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Why Would Bethenny Frankel Deny Being Jewish?

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Jennifer Ginsberg: I admit it: I am a huge fan of "The Real Housewives of New York City."

bethenny Frankel

While I love the entire "Real Housewives" series, the New York City one is my favorite because I lived in Manhattan and it holds a special place in my heart. I find the women of the show to be an intoxicating combination of vapid and intriguing, which makes for incredible reality television! Also, being a Jewish woman, I am happy to watch successful Jewish women on the show.

Jill Zarin recently coauthored the book "Secrets of a Jewish Mother," and I was thrilled to see a famous woman not only acknowledging, but embracing, her Judaism. I also assumed that Bethenny Frankel was proudly Jewish, but when I recently watched her on the "Real Housewives" after-show hosted by Andy Cohen, I was confused by how she responded to a viewer question. Andy had received an e-mail asking Bethenny if she was Jewish (which I found odd because she is so obviously a Jew). Bethenny responded, "No, I don't consider myself Jewish. My dad was Jewish and my mom converted ... but I don't think of myself as Jewish."

I was stunned. Here is a woman who is as "Jewishy" as they come: She looks Jewish, she sounds Jewish, she has a Jewish name and Yiddish words are peppered throughout her lexicon. Not to mention the fact that she is 100 percent Jewish, given that both of her parents are Jewish (Judaism recognizes converts to be as Jewish as if they had been born Jews). Why would she deny her ethnicity?

Bethenny quickly changed the subject to her new book and talked about all of her successes as an author and celebrity chef. Here is a beautiful, accomplished woman who is riding a hard-earned wave of success, yet she flat-out denied her heritage with no explanation. Had she said, "I was Jewish, but I found Jesus and converted," I would have understood. But her only reason for not affiliating with her religion was, "I'm just spiritual." But how, I wondered, does being Jewish conflict with being "spiritual"?

I found myself feeling a bit like I did when I used to watch "Seinfeld." Here were these characters who were so clearly Jewish, but there were rarely any direct references made to their Judaism. While I thought the show was brilliantly funny, I had a hard time jumping on the "Seinfeld bandwagon" because of the Jewish elephant in the living room. There was something vaguely unsettling and self-hating about the whole thing. I could only speculate that the producers believed that if the characters openly discussed their Judaism, they would have lost a large part of their audience because of anti-Semitism. Perhaps they were right.

I wonder if Bethenny feels the same way. I've always been a fan of hers on the show; she naturally takes on the role of Greek chorus as her sharp wit and moments of vulnerability showcase her magnetic personality. But now I'm not so sure. I'm disappointed that she missed the opportunity to proudly acknowledge her Judaism in front of a mass audience, especially during a time when Jews and the State of Israel need all the support they can get! While people of all creeds and cultures -- from Muslims to African-Americans -- get major kudos for embracing their heritage, it seems as if Jews are all too often reticent to acknowledge theirs.

It has been a long-standing debate as to whether Judaism is a religion or ethnicity. I'm with most American Jews who tend to think of their Jewishness as a matter of culture. There are certain cultural traits that that are shared by many Jews, just as there are distinguishing characteristics shared by Mexican-Americans or Italian-Americans. Jews in many parts of the world share many of those cultural aspects, which only leads to the fact that Judaism is indeed a culture. So while Bethenny may not be a practicing religious Jew, she is still culturally a Jew, just as an Italian-American who doesn't practice Catholicism is still Italian.

I can only imagine the uproar if one of the African-American women from "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" denied being black. Can you imagine Nene saying, "Both of my parents were African-American, but I don't consider myself black"? Not only would it be terribly insulting to the African-American community, it would be ridiculous as well. But it seems to be socially acceptable for Jews to assimilate to the point of denial.

In our society, we celebrate racial and religious diversity, and this is a wonderful thing
-- except, maybe, if you are Jewish. I'm now even more proud of Jill Zarin for valuing her heritage enough to write a book that celebrates everything that Judaism, her rich and beautiful faith, has taught her. And I wish Bethenny had had the chutzpah to at least answer "yes" when asked about hers.


next: Will Facebook Kill the High School Reunion?
112 comments so far | Post a comment now
Steph May 18, 2010, 3:37 AM

I assume Bethenny was looking at the question from a purely religious stand-point, rather than a cultural or ethnic one?

I come from a culturally Christian family, was baptized as an infant, in CCD until I was 13, etc. But now if someone asks me if I’m Christian, I reply that I’m not. I don’t practice the religion, I’m not a believer, and like Bethenny I try to move on in the conversation because it’s such a personal and obviously (hence the topic of this essay) very sensitive topic.

Melissa May 18, 2010, 3:55 AM

Since she didn’t expand on her answer, you really don’t know what her reasons are. She may have some really well thought out explanations that she just isn’t willing to share with the press (and half of the known world). Frankly, faith is a tricky subject, what she ultimately chooses is between she and her family.

Not a friend of JZ May 18, 2010, 4:22 AM

She sounds that way and uses Yiddish words because she lives in NYC, where everyone sounds like that and uses Yiddish words. Her father was Jewish, her mother Catholic. According to Jewish law, she is not Jewish. More to the point, she was not RAISED Jewish. Her father was not a presence in her life. Her mother and step-father are both Catholic.

And the only way you could be proud of Jill Zarin for the horrifying garbage in that book is if you are a personal friend of hers. That woman and her book make me ashamed to be Jewish. She makes Jews look terrible, like money-grubbing women concerned only about the size of a man’s bank account and shopping.

angelofdevs May 18, 2010, 4:42 AM

Seriously you are proud of Jill Zarin? What show do you watch? I think no religion would be proud to claim such a materialistic raging narcissist. Jill cares about only herself.

The book was written mostly by her sister yet Jill takes all credit. If the info and advice in it are prime examples of Judaism I am appalled. It is all about how to get ahead despite others and then justify and rationalize your self serving actions. I know good Jews, quality yentas and she is neither.

For the record, I was born Catholic, to a Catholic and a convert. I am not a Catholic, cannot call myself a Catholic because I DO NOT PRACTICE THE RELIGION ANYMORE. Do I believe in God? Yes. Do I hate Catholics? No. Am I ashamed of my origins? NO. I merely am not a practicing Catholic anymore for PERSONAL REASONS.

Bethenny’s religious affiliations are none of your business, furthermore for you to judge her against Jill based solely on her answer says a lot about you. Apparently calling yourself a Jew and going through the motions of it trumps actually trying to be a decent human being. NO ONE could call Jill a shining example of the Jews.

You might want to stop drinking that Kool Aid now because 80% of ushave seen through the hypocrisy that is Jill Zarin.

Judy Klein May 18, 2010, 5:33 AM

About the Seinfeld reference, most Jews, including the ones on Seinfeld, don’t keep kosher or observe the Sabbath. Judaism is obviously not part of their life. I live in NYC with all these “really Jewish” people who don’t attend temple, keep kosher of observe the Sabbath, yet always claim ( like Jill Zarin) to be “really Jewish”. At least Bethenny owns it.

Anonymous May 18, 2010, 5:47 AM

As a proud Jewish woman myself I can understand why she would say she wasn’t Jewish. The amount of prejudice I receive on the daily basis is astounding. Them number of people who try to convert me is beyond ridiculous. Also, the way people just think I have tons of money or am part of some big conspiracy theory makes it hard to admit I am Jewish sometimes.

However, for those of you comparing not calling yourself Catholic/Christian/etc. - being Jewish per se is cultural, not just religious. I both practice and am culturally Jewish. Most of my husband’s family is only culturally and family blood line Jewish -but still say they are Jewish. It’s different than saying “oh I’m Catholic” even if you don’t practice (I have a large part of my immediate family that is Catholic so I understand how this is different).

At any rate, Jews are the last people that it’s okay to be prejudice against. I experience it daily.

LynnNChicago May 18, 2010, 6:10 AM

Dont take it so personally! I took it as Bethenny not wanting to be a hypocrite. Clearly she doesn’t practice the religion and doesn’t exploit that she comes from a Jewish father.
Jill, who you are so proud of, also admits that she is NOT a practicing Jew.
You cannot compare a religion (Jewish) to a race (African-American) and you shouldn’t try!

Linda Schodowsky May 18, 2010, 6:58 AM

Technically, Bethenny isn’t Jewish - being ‘Jewish’ is passed on by the woman. If it were Bethenny’s mother that was Jewish and her dad wasn’t, she would be considered ‘Jewish’ by blood.

Case in point: My mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish, which makes me Jewish by blood. I was raised as a Christian but am Jewish by blood. While this confuses me, I’ve been told by Jewish friends and acquaintances that I am considered Jewish.

Therefore, Bethenny is right in how she feels.

BigLittleWolf May 18, 2010, 7:45 AM

I must take exception to the tone of your (highly judgmental) viewpoint. You are, of course, entitled to your opinion.

But for anyone to think that we “know” the women who reveal parts of themselves on television or through any other media channel is ridiculous. We know and see what we are allowed to presume. As for reality TV, about which I enjoy writing frequently (particularly Real Housewives of New York), we all know scenes are heavily edited to present more drama and entertainment.

Whatever Bethenny’s reasons are for claiming or not claiming her Jewish heritage are her own. Perhaps her difficult relationship (to say the least) with both parents has something to do with it. Perhaps she was, indeed, referring to religion rather than culture. And anyone who thinks that anti-semitism is NOT alive and well in contemporary society is living in the denial that you proclaim for Bethenny.

Successful? Yes. Beautiful? Yes. The Greek chorus? Indeed. Her reasons for what she says and does? Her own.

As for JZ, who has clearly become the “bad guy” this season (partly the editing?), I find her an embarrassing and stereotypical portrayal of the New York Jewish woman. And I consider that a shame. As with Bethenny, we see only what the producers of these shows wish us to see. We do not know the woman. We are in no position to make judgments. Only to hope for a day when any ethnicity or cultural/spiritual background will be so much “interesting information,” and not the stuff of prejudice.

BigLittleWolf @ DailyPlateOfCrazy.com

Trish May 18, 2010, 8:02 AM

Why is Judiasm the only religion that is also an ethnicity? As someone whose father is Jewish, mother isn’t and was raised Christian (I was baptized), I do not consider myself Jewish. I look Jewish, my maiden name is Jewish, but I am not of the Jewish faith. At all. I know nothing about it. When you live in NYC everyone knows some Yiddish. So saying a few words in Yiddish doens’t make you a Jew any more than saying a few words in Spanish makes a person Mexican. I think Bethenny answered the question honestly. When I lived in NYC I was often asked or it was just assumed that I was Jewish. I would respond with, “I am of Jewish heritage, but it is not my religion.” Again, I don’t understand why it is both an ethnicity and a religion.

jayedee aka ntiveheart May 18, 2010, 8:22 AM

how much did jill zarin pay you for that hatchet job?

Natasha May 18, 2010, 8:43 AM

I agree with previous posters. She “sounds” Jewsish because she lives in NYC. Joy Behar, a Catholic Italian, is constantly confused for a Jew. Why? Because of her NY wit. She uses Yiddish because her signif other is Jewish. So, “sounding Jewish” doesn’t make one a Jew.
My childhood bff has Jewish father and Protestant mother. She looks like her father’s family. She’s agnostic and has no connection to the Jewish faith or culture. So, “looking Jewish” doesn’t make one a Jew.
Oh, your comparison of being a Jew to being Black? Laughable! It’s offensive when people say a non-Black person “acts Black.” You either are or you aren’t. So, if Bethenny wasn’t raised in a Jewish home and doesn’t practice Juddism, she’s not Jewish.

shaina May 18, 2010, 8:47 AM

Here’s something odd - will the Jewish people please STAND UP? The comments made in response to this point are sybmolic of the Authors point.

I don’t go to temple. I don’t keep kosher but I’m still Jewish and proud of it. And, as a public figure, I’m proud to admit it regardless of whether I’m in NYC, LA, Singapore, Indonesia (a Muslim country) or Dubai.

Heck, even if you are not a practicing Jew you are considered a Jew by the Jewish religion if your mother is Jewish (prior to your birth). The religion of the father isn’t relevant. How you are raised doesn’t matter. If you are born to a Jewish mother you are a recognized Jew.

Unless Bethany converted, there’s only one response. “YES!”

Katrina May 18, 2010, 8:52 AM

If you want to go on a witch hunt, maybe I should introduce you to a man I know, a non observant, agnostic Jew. Married to a fence sitting Christian woman. As a result of his marriage and now confused ideologies, he even chose NOT to have a bar or bat mitzvah for his oldest Jewish born children.

He does not attend temple, nor does he observe even the holiest, except that it gets him out of work and onto a vacation.

He OWNS a kosher business in Florida and depends on observant Jews to keep kosher and support his business, yet does not keep kosher himself, nor does he even try to uphold the kosher dietary laws in any way, even loosely.

You can find him any given Friday night noshing his way through a pepperoni pizza rather than having a lovely Shabbat dinner.

Certainly HIS lack of observation should be more distasteful than Bethanny’s claim that she doesn’t consider herself a Jew. I can respect that. But I wonder how you would feel coming into the greater Orlando area, going to the ONLY kosher establishment for dinner and knowing the Jew behind the counter is only Jew by name.

Hannah May 18, 2010, 8:59 AM

Why is Judiasm the only religion that is also an ethnicity?

For non-Jewish it’s difficult to understand but here’s a nutshell:
It is racial - there are Semetic blood lines. For example, Ashkenazi Jews carrying the genetic blood line that prodcues Tay Sachs disease - this a disease only people of Jewish descent get. So there are some bloodlines/genetics/race in play.

You can also think of being Jewish as a nationality - much like being American. Anyone born in America is American even if they are of a different race - like anyone born into a Jewish family is Jewish (For the people saying Bethenny’s mom isn’t Jewish she most certainly is, conversion is considered the same as being born Jewish by Judaic law)even if they aren’t of Semetic blood they are Jewish. And just as immigrants can become American by applying for citizenship people can become Jewish through conversion. However, by Judaic law once Jewish by birth or conversion you are ALWAYS considered Jewish, even if you don’t practice the religion or convert to another religion Judaism does nto recognize the conversion).

At any rate I totally agree w/posters who say she probably doesn’t want to be considered Jewish due to prejudice. I have felt at times the need to hide my Jewishness due to the reaction I get - from others trying to convert me or thinking I’m part of a terror plot. But at any rate, she’s Jewish.

Dee May 18, 2010, 9:02 AM

Jewish is a religion NOT an ethnicity. You can’t convert your ethnicity as the writer claims. That’s absurd. It’s also dangerous to consider Jewish an ethnicity and most scholars will argue that it’s not. This misconception makes it much easier for people to discriminate against Jewish people based on some “genetic” inferiority.

Keesha May 18, 2010, 9:24 AM

It’s hard to compare being Jewish to being African American - I consider being Jewish as a religion and being African American as my race. My family is Christian but some of us are Baptist, Methodist, Catholic - so it’s hard to say you could deny being black but you could deny being religious. I don’t think she was being insulting she sounded like she was saying she didn’t practice the Jewish faith. If we went soley on colors then she would just be a white woman and - now if she said “I am not white” - my first question would be well what is she? Is she Indian, Greek, Italian - b/c sometimes ethnic people don’t like to be called just “white”.

Nadea May 18, 2010, 10:16 AM

As an African American woman I can clearly see how similar it is to identifying oneself as Jewish as it is to identify oneself as African American. Both are designation of a culture/ethnicity/race. As many African Americans call themselves just that, AFRICAN Americans, even if they have no idea if there family is from Africa or not, it just identifies them culturally. Jewish people are Jewish if they come from a Jewish heritage regardless of practing the religious aspect of the culture.

Jamie, RN May 18, 2010, 10:20 AM

“Jewish is a religion NOT an ethnicity. “

Jewish is an ethnicity/has racial blood sometimes - hence the disease another person mentioned, Tay Sachs - only those with Jewish bloodlines get the disease - not white, Latin, African American, just Jewish people.


SpiritualMegan May 18, 2010, 10:35 AM

I watched the same Andy Cohen episode, and she said she was not religious, meaning she doesn’t affiliate with any religion whatsoever. Get it? People wonder why in this country there is prejudice, when you insist on labeling everything instead of just looking at the person for who they are regardless of skin color,religion, or what have then that’s what happens. Maybe she is uncomfortable talking about it on camera, what do you know? Why write an entire article about it. And I agree with the person who said you must know Jill Zarin, because YUCK.


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